By Bronzeville Life
Bronzeville’s historic but vacant Forum, once the hottest and largest dance hall on the South Side, has received a $1 million grant to build an arts and culture hub at the site.
The grant was given by the Andrew M. Mellon Foundation’s Humanitarian in Place program in March.
The grant is a boost to an ongoing effort to renovate the 127-old building located at 318 East 43rd St. Bernard Loyd, president of the Urban Juncture Foundation, which is spearheading the Forum’s renovation, bought the building in 2011 after it was threatened for demolition.
The grant will help create The Creative Complex at the Forum, which will stretch across three store fronts on the building’s west annex and will include four art spaces. They include
- Creative Incubator and Cafe (318 E. 43rd): The project will include feature a ground-floor café, a shared office and multimedia production space in the basement. There will be support services to help local artists generate income from their art.
- Metropolis Gallery (320 E. 43rd): Local artists, historians and storytellers will display their work that highlight the Black experience in Bronzeville.
- Hansberry Studio (322 E. 43rd): The studio will honor the life of Chicago native and Playwright Lorraine Hansberry, author of the famous play “A Raisin in the Sun.” There will be a community theater on the first floor and a multi-use and wellness lab in the basement. The studio will provide learning, performance and wellness opportunities to Black girls and women.
- West Facade: A 15 by 20-foot screen will be mounted on the façade as part of an expansive rooftop that will feature “Train of Thoughts,” a year-round video storytelling initiative.
Gumbo Media, which is based in Chicago, is reportedly working with The Forum to create the spaces.
The Forum opened its doors for visitors during Open House Chicago in 2021. Visitors viewed the original stage, the massive ceiling and several original auditorium seats in the facility.
The historic building is listed on the National Register of Historical Places. It was built in 1897 when Bronzeville’s population was predominantly white. Construction began shortly after the nearby “L” stop opened in 1892 at 43rd Street.
The Forum was the largest dance hall on the South Side. Jazz music’s elite performed there and dance enthusiasts who wanted to learn the Charleston or the Jitterbug would come and do strut their stuff.
Chicago Alderman William Kent and his father, Albert, both of whom were white, built the Forum building as a social and political meeting hall. It was built in three sections, starting with the corner building known as “Forum Hall.”
Back then, wealthy Irish, Scottish, English and German Jews and European residents lived in mansions and elegant brownstones in the area. They would hold their social and political meetings at The Forum. The Forum functioned continuously as a dance hall, containing a large hardwood ballroom in the second floor Forum. According to Landmark Illinois, The Forum has the oldest surviving hardwood ballroom dance floor in Chicago.
The Forum eventually became a popular music scene in Chicago, attracting prominent jazz and blues musicians, including Nat King Cole, Muddy Waters and Floyd Campbell. Captain Walter Dyett and Milt Hinton also played there. A 1965 obituary in the Chicago Defender stated “… Nat assembled bands to play school proms and Sunday dances at the old Warick and Forum Halls, where admission prices ranged from 25 to 50 cents. “In his book, “The Autobiography of Black Jazz,” the late Chicago real estate mogul Dempsey Travis wrote, “The Forum is best remembered as headquarters for Professor Watts’ Monday, Wednesday and Friday night dance school. It was also the scene of afternoon high school hops, and unforgettably romantic spotlight dances, where an appropriate theme song would be Lil Green’s, “Romance in the Dark.”
After the closure of “Forum Hall” and the second-floor performance space in the 1970s, the building fell into disrepair.
According to Landmarks Illinois, Urban Juncture invested $250,000 in the cleanup and stabilization of the building. In 2014, the group held a special block party that was part of Open House Chicago, the event included dance lessons, music and a preview of “Juke Joint,” a short film that was shot in the building. Massive Black and white canvases of jazz musicians were placed in the arched windows on the building’s façade.